December 30, 2013; KTOO

January 15, 2014 is the next big budget deadline. Fortunately for members of the House and Senate, the American public seems to be so fatigued from the serial budget crises of the past couple of years, narrowly averted by the budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), this deadline isn’t getting much play in the national press.

By January 15th, the House and Senate are supposed to have completed the drafting and approval of a dozen spending or “appropriations” bills—or, alternatively, one big fat omnibus appropriations bill. The nation hasn’t seen a real appropriations process in some time now, as the polarized Congress has resorted to “continuing resolutions,” minor modifications of the previous year’s budget, instead of the “regular order” of passing a budget establishing top-line spending thresholds and appropriations bills establishing the spending details.

Appropriations used to be a big deal, reflecting the power of a handful of senators and representatives to shape and direct the contours of federal spending, abetted by their ability to hand out earmarks. Now, earmarks are largely a thing of the past, at least in terms of the anonymous earmarks that members of Congress used to orchestrate. Regarding overall appropriations, this is now something of a rediscovered skill for congressional appropriators, but with a short time between President Obama’s signing the budget deal and the January 15th appropriations deadline, there may not be much that the appropriators can do to flex their muscle, the way someone like Ted Stevens used to in order to funnel lots of spending toward Alaska or Robert Byrd toward West Virginia.

With the short timeframe, nonprofits would be a day late and a dollar short if they didn’t put real effort into affecting the appropriations process. The window for action is kind of small. If nonprofits want to get their members of Congress ginned up on appropriations, with enough vigor to actually change something, they really only have between January 6th or so, when the politicians begin to return from their holiday escapades, and the 15th. All told, that’s probably only about a week’s work of congressional attention to the appropriations decisions that will have to be made.

Unlike the budget deal, which really only established top-line spending thresholds, the appropriations process is the time, according to Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), when a handful of members of Congress can “can appropriate strategically and surgically remove programs that are no longer efficient, not necessary anymore and do the right kind of budget balancing that’s critical.” Want to know where your favorite program went? It might be on the appropriators’ budget-redirecting floor, unless you’re attentive enough to get heard about what’s important and what’s not.

Some people understand the potential power of the appropriators. On the House side, the top Democrat is New York State’s Nita Lowey, who is promoting appropriations for Head Start, the National Institutes of Health, and basic scientific research. Although House Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) downplayed the possibility of the budget process affecting the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, saying that most of the ACA funding is on the entitlement side of the budget, some ideologically minded Republican appropriators might take aim at discretionary healthcare funding items.

Nonetheless, the federal appropriations process seems to be proceeding under the radar screen. The 12-bill (or omnibus bill) result might be a surprise for budget-weary nonprofit advocates.—Rick Cohen